The Economic Consequences Of War

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Posted: Jan 24, 2020 10:40 AM
The Economic Consequences Of War

Source: AP Photo/Qassim Abdul-Zahra

Back in 2010, I wrote about the absurd contention, promoted by some advocates of Keynesian economics, that wars are good for prosperity.

According to this crackpot theory, destroying wealth is a net positive because people then have to spend money to rebuild.

Now this “conceptual bad penny” is showing up again.

The New York Times, in an article about Iran’s economy, includes some analysis suggesting that war would stimulate growth.

…some experts suggest that the regime’s hard-liners may eventually come to embrace hostilities with the United States as a means of stimulating the anemic economy. …Iran has in recent years focused on forging a so-called resistance economy in which the state has invested aggressively, subsidizing strategic industries, while seeking to substitute domestic production for imported goods. …it appears to have raised employment. Hard-liners might come to see a fight with Iran’s archenemy, the United States, as an opportunity to expand the resistance economy.

Needless to say, Iran is marching in the wrong direction. Not only would a war be devastating for the country’s prosperity, but Iran is also making a big mistake by pursuing a policy of “import substitution.”

That’s basically the Peronist approach that helped trigger Argentina’s big economic decline. Though, to be fair, Iran presumably is doing the wrong thing for geopolitical reasons (avoiding sanctions) rather than protectionist reasons.

There are some Keynesians in other parts of the world who think war is good for growth, in part based on a misreading of America’s economic history.

In a piece for the Foundation for Economic Education, Professor Burton Folsom exposes a great weakness in their argument, pointing out that advocates of Keynesianism wrongly expected a return to depression when government spending dropped after World War II.

On the surface, World War II seems to mark the end of the Great Depression. During the war more than 12 million Americans were sent into the military, and a similar number toiled in defense-related jobs. Those war jobs seemingly took care of the 17 million unemployed in 1939. Most historians have therefore cited the massive spending during wartime as the event that ended the Great Depression. …In truth, building tanks and feeding soldiers—necessary as it was to winning the war—became a crushing financial burden. …In other words, the war had only postponed the issue of recovery. …President Roosevelt and his New Dealers sensed that war spending was not the ultimate solution; they feared that the Great Depression—with more unemployment than ever—would resume after Hitler and Hirohito surrendered. Yet FDR’s team was blindly wedded to the federal spending that…had perpetuated the Great Depression during the 1930s. …Roosevelt’s death in the last year of the war prevented him from unveiling his New Deal revival. But President Harry Truman was on board for most of the new reforms. …Republicans and southern Democrats refused to give Truman his New Deal revival. …Instead they cut tax rates to encourage entrepreneurs to create jobs for the returning veterans. …In 1945 and 1946 Congress repealed the excess-profits tax, cut the corporate tax to a maximum 38 percent, and cut the top income tax rate to 86 percent. In 1948 Congress sliced the top marginal rate further, to 82 percent.

Let’s be thankful that FDR (and then Truman) didn’t succeed in the plan for an “economic bill of rights” that would have radically expanded the power of government.

For those interested, there are other possible economic consequences of war.

In a scholarly study for the Journal of Monetary Economics, Professors Dan Ben-David and David H. Papell find that moments of significant economic disruption – such as wars – often are followed by periods of above-average and better-than-expected growth.

In this paper, we use up to 130 years of annual aggregate and per capita GDP data for 16 countries to investigate whether output exhibits a trend break and whether economic growth is constant or changing over time. …This study provides empirical evidence that, for nearly every one of the countries, the years that provide the strongest evidence for a trend break are associated with a sharp decline in GDP. These breaks are associated with World War II for most of the countries and either World War I or the Great Depression for the remainder. While countries do tend to exhibit relatively constant growth rates for extended periods of time, the occurrence of a major shock to the economy and the resultant drop in levels are usually followed by sustained growth that exceeds the earlier steady state growth. …On average, aggregate postbreak steady state growth rates are 79 percent higher than the average prebreak rates. The results are even stronger for the per capita case, where all fifteen countries exhibit postbreak growth rates that exceed prebreak rates. In the per capita case, the steady state postbreak rates are 163 percent higher than the steady state prebreak rates.

Their study doesn’t explain why the economy expands beyond the pre-disruption trend, but one obvious explanation is that wars erode the power of privileged interest groups and thus reduce the deadweight cost of cronyism. Especially for nations that lose wars and have to start from scratch.

That’s not an excuse to have a war, of course, but it does suggest that dark clouds can have silver linings.

But sometimes dark clouds have dark linings.

In a column for Vox, Dylan Matthews examines research about the link between war and harsh tax rates.

…for the first century of American history, the federal government was funded mainly through tariffs, not income taxes. It was only in the early 20th century that the 16th Amendment authorizing income taxes passed… A recent paper by UC – Berkeley grad student Juliana Londoño Vélez provides an intriguing explanation for this evolution. Progressive taxation wasn’t an inevitable effect of democracy… It was an accidental effect of the 20th century’s massive wars. …The first federal income tax proposal came during the War of 1812, and one was implemented briefly during the Civil War. While the Progressive Era brought a renewed push, and the 16th Amendment and an accompanying income tax law were passed four years before US entry into World War I, it wasn’t until the US joined the conflict that the tax’s scale expanded to modern levels. …World War I also greatly expanded the French income tax; in 1920, to help pay for reconstruction, the top rate grew from 2 percent to 50 percent. …Londoño Vélez’s argument is quantitative. She compiled data on top income tax rates for sixteen rich, developed countries, and pairs it with data on mass mobilizations for war. …Londoño Vélez found that “no country had high taxes on the rich before the advent of war, with [the] top rate rarely exceeding 10 percent … the Wars created substantial income tax progressivity, with periods of mass war mobilization coinciding with significant rises in the top income tax rate.” …Londoño Vélez also finds that war mobilization has a significant effect on income tax rates five years on, suggesting that the effect on taxes persisted.

Here’s Figure 1 from the article, showing how tax burdens jumped because of World War I and then jumped again because of World War II.

My two cents is that wars may have been the initial excuse for income taxes and high rates, but politicians eventually would have concocted other reasons (based on their self interest) to extract lots of money.

Indeed, “Wagner’s Law” is an entire hypothesis based on the notion that politicians figure out how to grab ever-greater amounts of money as nations get richer.

That being said, it’s good to have another reason to oppose war.